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Vincennes University's Shilo Jackson shoots over Kankakee in the Trailblazers' season opener Tuesday at the P.E. Complex. Jackson scored 17 points on 7-of-8 shooting, as VU pulled out a 79-68 victory.

Battle on Hillcrest Road

Hillcrest Road-area residents on Tuesday went toe-to-toe with a local business owner about a proposed zoning change near their homes.

Members of the county’s Area Plan Commission took up a zoning change request filed by Terry Webb, the current owner of a pair of lots on Hillcrest Road near the park, a property that’s been used for storage and repair by Vincennes Autoplex, 2811 N. Sixth St., for more than 20 years.

Aaron Schnelle, who is also listed as a petitioner, owns Vincennes Autoplex, having purchased it from Webb just a couple years ago, and he’s now looking to buy the property on Hillcrest Road, too.

But as the sale moved forward, it was discovered that the property is actually zoned as residential, not commercial, so Katie Kotter, an attorney with HartBell LLC, on behalf of the petitioners, filed to seek the zoning change.

Residents, however, filled the meeting space at the city’s Drinking Water Plant in protest, most of them saying they’d grown weary of how much it had grown in recent years, particularly with heavy traffic allegedly going in and out of the shop on a daily basis.

At least one neighbor has reportedly circulated a petition against the zoning change — one filed with APC members and which as many as 90% of those living nearby have signed.

Debbie Danner was the first to take to the podium to speak in opposition of the petition, saying she’d lived along Hillcrest Road for the last ten years, watching as Vincennes Autoplex allegedly brought in more and more cars, even car haulers. She called it “an illegal business” and said “a residential area should stay residential.”

Pete White, who lives in the 1600 block of Hillcrest Road, said he was a “representative of his neighbors,” all of them in opposition of the zoning change.

“It has always been a residential district, and we want to see it remain a residential district,” he told APC members.

Yet the property has been serving a local business now for more than two decades, and Schnelle, in addressing the commission, said he has no plans to expand, only to maintain what is there. Too, he said he has plans to install a privacy fence, one to better obstruct what neighbors may find intrusive or unappealing.

He dismissed rumors of alleged crime or break-ins, saying there hadn’t been any thefts on the property, not to his knowledge.

He did, however, say he had increased the size of the parking lot, adding gravel to the front, just off Hillcrest Road, to allow for more employee parking.

Yet the business, he said, “predates” many of the adjoining land owners having lived there; the property has been used by Vincennes Autoplex in some capacity for repair and overrun since 2003.

“I’m just here to set the record straight,” he said. “I have no plans to expand the property. The woods that is there will remain.

“Many of these people purchased homes, moved in knowing the shop was there. So I’m really just not clear on what the problem is.”

Colt Michaels, executive director of the APC, said a permit for the construction of the initial shop was issued to the previous owner Rick Burnett, back in 1989; it was expanded in 1994.

It was only permitted to be a private residential garage, so a business operating there, regardless of how long, has always been in violation of local zoning laws.

Michaels, too, said while much of the conversation spilling out Tuesday night was the result of the petition to change the zoning, he had received two complaints in the past from neighbors, which “brought it to my attention,” he told the commission.

Kotter, in urging the APC to find the request favorable, said by not doing so “doesn’t change the fact that the property is there and will continue to be there.”

Updating the zoning to reflect the property’s long-time use would, she said, would ultimately prove beneficial.

Too, Schnelle said reports of constant traffic, even damage to the road, are “overblown.” He gets deliveries two, maybe three times per day, he said, and there is actually “little traffic” in and out during the work day.

“No cars have ever been broken into, nor the building itself,” he told the commission. “I’m happy to put up a fence to appease the neighbors. I get it, that’s the reason I want to do that, to try to alleviate some of the visible deficits.

“I just want to bring the property up to code. I’m not trying to change anything or expand.”

Still, neighbors persisted.

Zach Holt, who lives in the 1600 block of Hillcrest Road, claimed the business has grown steadily over the last 5-6 years. And as a real estate agent that specializes in the sale of land on which to build homes, he argued that the continued existence of a business there could drive down nearby property values.

“There is no doubt in my mind that a (commercial) zoning at the entrance to a residential neighborhood will decrease desirability of these homes,” he said.

Nash Dunn, who also lives in the 1600 block of Hillcrest Road, said while he only in the last few years purchased the home himself, he’s lived there since the mid 1990s, having bought it from his parents.

He remembers, he said, when Burnett built his “home shop,” and what’s there now is much larger than what he remembers as a child.

“And while it has been cleaned up recently, that is not the normal condition of the property,” he alleged, also saying that he fears for the safety of his wife and children as they often trek that stretch of road to get to nearby Hillcrest Park.

“You’ve heard from residents. You’ve heard what the building started as and how it has transitioned,” White, who returned to the podium for a second time, said as the conversation wound down. “So do we continue to say it’s OK just because it’s been there for 20 years?

“We’re only asking that a residential area be allowed to remain a residential area.”

Closing the floor to any more comment, APC member Tony Mahan said he was inclined to understand nearby homeowners’ concern. A few cars being housed as part of a residential garage could be overlooked, but “20 cars going in and out is a whole different game.”

“And maybe it’s going too far,” he said.

Tom Yochum, another APC member, said a possible C3 zoning change “scared the daylights” out of him, considering much of the area is residential.

The requested C3 zoning, the most lenient of commercial designations, would allow for anything from a convenience store to a fast food restaurant and even big box retail.

“So I’m not in favor of this,” Yochum said.

In the end, the other members agreed, and the commission voted unanimously to give the petition an unfavorable recommendation.

It will now go before the county commissioners for further consideration. Members historically weigh heavily the APC’s recommendation in making a zoning-related decision, but it will ultimately be up to the three of them.

The commissioners next meet at 6 p.m. on Nov. 15 at City Hall, 201 Vigo St.

Should they deny the petition, and the property owner — whether Schnelle buys it or it remains in the hands of Terry Webb — continues to operate a business there, the APC could issue a cease and desist, according to Michaels. Such drastic action would, however, require additional research and direction on behalf of the commission’s legal counsel.

Fines, too, could be levied against the owner for being in violation of the county’s zoning laws.

Knox County’s 100 Women Who Care recently announced that their October recipient is Christyn’s Place. The nonprofit was awarded $4,700, an amount expected to increase in the next few weeks as more donations are received. Since its inception in July of 2019, the 100 Women Who Care of Knox County has given more than $170,000 to the local nonprofit community. The group met to consider its October gift at its quarterly meeting held on Oct. 20 at St. John’s United Church of Christ. The group will meet again in January.

100 Women Who Care

Deadly Evansville house explosion traced to leaking gas line

EVANSVILLE, Ind. (AP) — An August house explosion that killed three people in a southern Indiana neighborhood has been ruled accidental after investigators traced the blast to a leaking natural gas line in the home's basement, officials said Wednesday.

The Indiana State Fire Marshal said its joint investigation with the Evansville Fire Department into the Aug. 10 explosion determined the leaking gas line “was found uncapped, with the valve in the open position.”

Gas line meter data “showed a sharp increase in gas usage beginning two days before the blast," the State Fire Marshal said in a news release. “No additional evidence was found to determine how the valve was opened; however, there is no indication of foul play."

Investigators said testing found that the gas lines between the home’s meter and the mainlines of the local utility, CenterPoint Energy, were in “proper working order." Testing also confirmed that the odorant additive Mercaptan was present in the gas line leading into the home.

“It could not be determined how the occupants were unaware of the gas accumulating in the home,” the news release states.

The cause of the deadly explosion was ruled accidental. Although investigators could not conclusively identify the ignition source that ultimately ignited the gas, they found that “electrical devices and other appliances in the home could have served as an ignition source."

CenterPoint Energy said in a statement the State Fire Marshal’s report “further supports the company’s findings, determining that an accident inside the house, independent of CenterPoint Energy’s system, was the cause of the incident.”

The explosion, which was captured on video, launched wooden boards, window glass, insulation and other debris at least 100 feet (30 meters) into the air in Evansville, the Evansville Courier & Press reported.

Authorities said the explosion damaged 39 homes, leaving 11 of them uninhabitable in the Ohio River city about 170 miles (270 kilometers) southwest of Indianapolis.

A married couple, 43-year-old Charles Hite and 37-year-old Martina Hite, were killed when their house exploded. A neighbor, 29-year-old Jessica Teague, also died. The Hites died of blunt force trauma to their chests, while Teague died of compression asphyxia, the Vanderburgh County Coroner’s Office said.

Mike Larson, the division chief of the Evansville Fire Department, said Wednesday that he hopes the findings bring closure to all the people who were affected by the explosion.

“The investigation is complete, these are the findings and hopefully it will help everybody be able to move forward from this point,” he said.

APC approves long-awaited solar application

Nearly four years after first making contact with local elected officials, Origis, a solar developer based in Miami, Florida, this week took plans for a farm to be erected just northeast of Wheatland before members of the Area Plan Commission for approval.

Situated in Steen and Vigo townships, Origis’ plan is to place solar panels on more than 1,400 acres of land, much of it reclaimed farm ground, APC members learned during their meeting, held Tuesday at the city’s Drinking Water Plant on River Road.

All of it has been leased, Origis representatives said, and they’re ready to go, planning to begin construction early next year, ramping up to full operations by the fourth quarter of 2024.

“It’s a large facility but it should move quickly once we get started,” said project developer Dan Farrell, who went on to say that the developer has already invested $1.6 million in the $185 million overall project, one set to generate enough energy to power 25,000 homes.

Farrell said Origis began scouting potential places in Knox County back in 2018. Then, in the summer of 2021, it signed with the county council an Economic Development Agreement, one that grants from Origis to the county $2.5 million in annual payments spread over six years.

In return, the council allowed for a ten-year personal property tax abatement, one that essentially forgives 100% of the taxes in exchange for the economic development payments.

County taxing entities, too, stand to see as much as $24 million in revenue over the course of the solar farm’s 35-year lifespan.

In a presentation that lasted just over an hour, representatives from Origis as well as third-party engineers and consultants walked APC members through their entire application, one that lays out environmental mitigation efforts as well as connections made with those set to live around the solar site.

Community outreach, Farrell said, is one of the “most important things we do.”

They began meeting with affected residents some 18 months ago, he said, had “good, frank conversations” about the project. Origis also developed a website specific to the Steen/Vigo Township project, sent out upwards of 15,000 emails, another 4,400 fact booklets and answered 300 submitted questions.

“And I believe we were able to address all of the issues that came up,” Farrell told the APC.

“This is something we do for every single project we have. We need to make sure neighbors know what’s going on. Nobody wants to wake up and see the construction of solar panels out their window without knowing what’s happening. So this is something we really invest in.”

And while the meeting room inside the city’s Drinking Water Plant was full, many of those in attendance were there to express their support for the Origis project — a stark contrast to a rather contentious meeting in August of 2020 when officials with Nebraska-based Tenaska sought a permit for a solar farm to be constructed in Harrison Township.

That meeting drew dozens of upset residents in opposition to the project, which would eventually become the county’s first-ever approved solar farm.

This time around, however, only one person spoke in opposition to the Origis project, someone who alleged that too much farm ground was being lost to the development of clean energy and that the panels were manufactured outside the U.S., China specifically.

Farrell addressed both, saying much of the farm ground set for development is reclaimed coal mine ground — a fact farmers in attendance attested to — and that while some of Origis’ solar panels are manufactured outside the U.S., many are not.

Lara Dawson, a resident of nearby Wheatland, took first to the podium saying she was in favor of the solar development, saying she wanted to see Knox County “at the forefront” of the clean energy movement.

Her husband, Brett Dawson, president of the Wheatland Town Council, too, said while Wheatland doesn’t stand to benefit directly from the development, the town will — eventually.

“Maybe not soon, maybe even after I’m dead, but we have to allow for growth,” he said. “I don’t want to miss this opportunity, if not for myself, for my children, my grandchildren.

“And if we pass, that investment will just go somewhere else,” he said.

Another resident living near the site of the development, Nathan Martinson, expressed a similar sentiment.

“I’m excited about it,” he said. “Whether it’s built here or not, solar energy, renewable energy, is coming. I find it exciting that right here in Knox County we can be at the forefront of this — rather than playing catch up later.”

In terms of economic development, the solar farm is expected to create about 113 jobs during actual construction, five full-time jobs once its completed.

Long-term, the annual payroll is expected to be about $500,000, representatives said.

With solar development on the rise in Indiana — and with developers already actively looking here — the county in 2019 began the process of drafting its own solar ordinance to help guide everyone through the rather complicated zoning process.

Tenaska’s RATTS 2 project — which is still in development — was the first to be approved under those new guidelines. This marks the second.

The APC determined that Origis’ application meets all the standards set forth by the county’s solar ordinance.

The COVID news is 'good ... for now'

After several months of widespread COVID-19 infection — often with the highest rate in the state — Knox County has returned to a “low” level of risk, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

All but three Indiana counties are now in the low risk category on the CDC website, with only Wayne, Union and Fayette counties cited as being moderately risky.

“The news is good . . . for now,” said Betty Lankford, Knox County’s COVID-19 nurse and clinic coordinator.

Lankford added that according to the Indiana Department of Health and the CDC, the seven day average infection rate continues to slowly decline.

“But we will continue to watch for indication of a seasonal surge.

“The holidays are coming, and this thing is so contagious,” she said of the omicron sub-variants that have been running rampant in the area since late spring.

While numbers are declining, “it’s still here,” Knox County Health Officer Dr. Alan Stewart said.

According to Indiana’s COVID dashboard, Knox County currently has an infection rate of 56 cases per 10,000 residents, which is down substantially from one month ago when the rate was 133 per 100,000 residents.

The current case count is just above 200, and, according to Stewart, there are five local inpatient cases at Good Samaritan. Two of those patients, he said, are in the ICU and would be considered Long COVID patients.

In addition to the steadily declining number of cases, local health officials have been pleased by the turnout for the omicron-specific booster shots, which became available in early September.

Lankford says in the months of September and October the health department gave more than 1,500 COVID vaccines.

“I ran the numbers for September and October, and they’re amazing,” Lankford said, feeling encouraged by the good response to the reconstituted vaccines. “In September our total number of COVID vaccines given was 774, which was the most we had done in one month for the year 2022.”

Health department staff say they’ve also visited three longterm care residences in the county to offer the new COVID boosters and influenza vaccines.

“The longterm care residents and staff are doing their part to fight COVID and flu,” Lankford said.

In general, she added, area residents over age 50 are staying up-to-date with vaccines to try to slow the spread of the COVID virus, but the health department continues to be disappointed by the low turnout of younger adults, who are generally less severely affected if they contract COVID.

“We’re not seeing many young adults — please, do your part to help contain the spread,” Lankford said. “It would be nice if enough people got a vaccine so that we could have herd immunity.”

This, she noted, is particularly important as we near the holidays — a time when many children and young adults will gather indoors with elderly relatives, putting them at greater risk of severe illness should they contract COVID.

Knox County’s total vaccination rate continues to hover around 50%, but 87% of locals over the age of 65 have been fully vaccinated.

With three new omicron sub-variants of concern, vaccination remains an important tool in the fight against the virus.

“BA.5 is still the dominant strain, but there’s several more out there, particularly three that they’re watching and are supposed to gain speed,” Lankford said. “They are relatives of omicron, so we’re hoping the new bivalent vaccine will continue to be helpful.”

The Knox County Health Department has both the Pfizer and Moderna bivalent boosters available, as well as Novavax, which is also now available as a booster.

Lankford says the department also has flu vaccines available and recommends residents get one sooner than later.

“Flu is supposed to be everywhere you look — it’s supposed to be a bad year,” she said, noting that the flu season seems to have started early.

The good news, Lankford adds, is that this year’s vaccine seems to be a good match for the subtypes of influenza currently circulating.

Annual influenza vaccines are recommended for everyone, including infants over the age of six months.

For more information about COVID-19 or influenza vaccines, contact the health department, 305 S. Fifth St., at 812-882-8700.